Brothers in arms

Amira Howeidy , Monday 15 May 2023

The Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestine War, Kamel Ismail El-Sherif, 1949, Cairo, 265 pages

UN partition plan 1947
The Society of Muslim Brothers joined the resistance in Palestine following the 1947 UN partition plan 


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 12 March 1998


This book was written and published in 1949, immediately after the first Arab-Israeli war was over. The author, Kamel El-Sherif, who fought in the war among the ranks of the volunteers sent by the Society of the Muslim Brothers, narrates with facts and often opinionated details, the experience of the organisation he belonged to in the war.


The book itself is dedicated to the memory of "the martyred Imam Hassan El-Banna", the Brotherhood's founder and leader, who was assassinated in Cairo in February 1994. The preface points that this is the second edition which succeeded in making it to the bookshops after the 1952 revolution. It attributes the "defeat" in Palestine to the existence of corrupt regimes in the Arab world, such as the Monarchical regime in Egypt which had just been thrown over and replaced by a republican regime.


The leaders of the nascent republic were no other than the Egyptian officers who were besieged by the Jewish forces in Falouga. The book boasts how both the Brotherhood and men like future president Gamal Abdel-Nasser fought back in 1948.


As obvious from the name of the book, this 265-long narrative of the 1947-48 era in Palestine is presented through the lens of the Muslim Brotherhood on the warring front. Naturally, it views the entire war from a religious perspective. The Arabs here are generally referred to as "the Muslims" who were defeated by "the Jews". And what the Brotherhood did was "Jihad""- holy war.


But besides the bitter tone apparent in the introduction which blames the Arab regimes for the defeat, ؛The Muslim Brothers in the Palestine War؛ offers a rare detailed account of the battles by an insider who led the force of Egyptian irregulars on the southern front.


However, this tone which is very pronounced in the introduction, as well as while narrating the many Arab shortcomings and defeats which occurred during the war, offers the reader a passionate sense of reliving the whole experience again.


"What did the Arab Governments do to combat that growing danger? Every Jewish aggression and daring step towards expanding and laying down the foundations of the Jewish state, was met, from our side, with protestation to the UN. Some protests were strong, others were mild depending on the degree of the Jewish aggression each time," the author writes with anger at the incompetence of the Arabs in dealing with the Zionist threat.


The first three chapters of the book provide historical background of the Palestine question since the Ottoman rule and monitors the "different attempts" by the Jews to purchase Palestinian land. It also tackles the role played by the British mandate, to establish a "national home" for the Jews. The following chapter uncovers how the British "deceived" and "anaesthetised" the Arabs by "undermining" the importance of establishing this national home.


The mandate, for example, appointed a Jewish-dominated or anti-Arab administration in Palestine. It also opened the door for immigration, ultimately raising the number of Jews from 50,000 in 1916 to half a million in 1940. "Despite this huge number, they continued to smuggle in hundreds of thousands of Jews who were living in different European countries" writes El-Sherif.


The book is not devoid though from a sympathetic tone with the "wretched and miserable Jews who tasted the bitterness of deprivation in the Nazi camps." El-Sherif points out, however, that oddly enough, those were not the immigrants who poured on Palestine following the holocaust. Those who came were "strong powerful men brought in for political reasons."


The "story" of the Society of Moslem Brothers in Palestine begins in chapter four, "on November 1947" and following the UN partition resolution. At that time, the Jews, it points, were well prepared, as they had been preparing themselves "in silence" for a long time. Owning colonies on parts of the land that no Arab could enter helped them enhance their military armament and equipment. "It was known that the Jews had several military organisations in Palestine and some East European countries which amounted to more than 80,000 soldiers - formed to perform guerrilla war to combat Arab attacks".


El-Sherif cites the example of the Haganah Zionist militia, "in a process of formation since the Ottoman rule in Palestine, which grew from being a mere nightguards and developed under the auspices of the British till it became a comprehensive, properly equipped well trained army."


The Palestinians on the other hand were in a state of war with Zionism and Britain ever since the announcement of the Balfour declaration in 1917, were unable to organise themselves similarly. This in great part is due to the fact that while the world's Jewry were supporting their "brothers" in Palestine by providing them with arms, weapons, ammunition and military equipment, the Arab Palestinian people were left to fight the stratagem of the Jews and the occupation alone. "This is why when the fighting started, the two opposite forces were incompatible" he states.


It is not until chapter five that the book directly recounts the Brotherhood's experience in Palestine. It begins first by asserting that the group did not take action as a result of the UN partition decisions. "The brotherhood as an International Islamic Institution has always placed the defence of the Islamic cause on top of its agenda... and Palestine was their top priority".


The Society of Muslim Brothers was active in Palestine much earlier than 1947, El-Sherif claims. They sent the Palestinians all the weapons and money they had and during the 1936 revolution, many members of the Society succeeded in getting into Palestine and joined forces with the Palestinians, especially in the North were they worked with the "great Arab Mujahed, Sheikh Ezzedein El-Qassam".


After WW2, says the book, the Brotherhood worked more seriously for the cause. They sent delegations of preachers and young men who urged the Arabs to fight with the Palestinians and to train their youth secretly. This role triggered the anger of the Jews who, in return, launched a counter campaign by publishing lengthy articles in the European and American press attacking the Brotherhood and exposing the threat they posed to British and American interests.


Whether this claim is accurate or not, an interesting translation of a Sunday Mirror article (which the book says appeared early '48) published on pages 43-45 provides a rare document of Jewish lobbying that goes back 50 years. The article bylined by a Roth Karif, attacks and criticised the Brotherhood at length. The Sunday Mirror article, cited in the book, ends by saying: "If the world does not recognise the threat posed (by the brotherhood) now Europe will witness again what it had witness a decade ago, as it may find itself confronted by an Islamic Fascist empire extending from North Africa to Pakistan, and from Turkey to the Indian Ocean."


It was not easy for the Brotherhood to get into Palestine. In chapter 6, El-Sherif recounts how he tried entering in November '47 "but found great difficulty... and I was forced to return back more than once, until I had to walk, on foot, for long distances. And I moved cautiously till I reached Jaffa" were he joined other brothers, but was arrested by British officers.


When arrested by the Jewish gangs "members of the Brotherhood were treated as war criminals and not like prisoners of war... so they were killed and their bodies mutilated. I saw with my own eyes how the Jews arrested and threw martyr Mokhtar Mansour into an armoured vehicle. I was told later on by eye witnesses that the Jews simply shot to kill him.. they recognised him by his beard and identity card and they simply killed him."


The British, the book says, collaborated actively with the Jewish gangs. Kamel recounts how he saw a large number of British officers training young men and women of the Haganah near Jerusalem. Ironically, the real trouble began after the British mandated ended on May 14.


"The British continued to move the war policy from behind the scenes... the Brotherhood asked the [Egyptian] Noqrashi Government to allow them to send a league of mujahedeen to remain in the Northern part of Al Naqab desert, but they were turned down and the government insisted on preventing them from getting there". So the Brotherhood decided to make another appeal, under the umbrella of 'a scientific expedition' to Sinai. They got an approval and "secretly smuggled themselves into Palestine in February 1948." Fighting then took place between the Brotherhood and the Jews in El-Naqab desert.


Throughout the book, Kamel recounts tales of the Brotherhood's chivalry. Similarly, he stresses how this was repeatedly thwarted by the inefficiency and disorganisation of the Arab army on one hand, and over-powered by the British and US-backed Jewish gangs.


For example, the book explains how the first truce announced on June 11, 1948, and accepted by the Arab countries, helped the Jewish gangs occupy more land and claim more weapons. "Most of the dangerous zones that the Jews could not occupy before, were easy targets during the truce. The same old justification of the UN and the Israeli government was that these perpetrators are nothing more than disordered extremist gangs.. The Arab countries believed that claim, and proudly refused to engage in guerrilla warfare."


Although it does not offer unusual information on 1948, The Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestine War derives its importance from the mere fact that it is one of the very few works that accurately monitor the details of that period. It also presents rich material (which remain the personal impression of the author) and zooms up to numerous key figures of the war such as Ahmed Abdel Aziz, the leader of the Egyptian guerrillas, General Ahmad Al-Mawawi and General Mustapha Sadek, the two Commanders of the Egyptian army in Palestine respectively, as well as many of the Arab leaders of the resistance movement such as Abdel-Qader El-Husseini and Fawzi Al-Qawuqji.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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